Before we dive into the deep end, I want you all to know that I won this game for the Bears.*
Oregon ran for 3 yards on the first play of their 2nd overtime possession, and Cal fans everywhere are bracing for the inevitable touchdown that will end the game. We’re all feeling pre-demoralized. At this exact moment, I loudly exclaim “You know, it’s amazing that there hasn’t been a single turnover in this entire game! Isn’t that unbelievable?!”
Roughly 12 seconds later, game over.
And thank God, because after 4.5 hours of football and the usual insane-but-also-completely-expected swings of emotion that accompany every Cal game, we were all fried.
If you’re reading this column, it’s presumably because you want analysis with a smattering of bad jokes. I hate to disappoint you, but I don’t even know what to say any more. It’s the same game every week, with perhaps slight stylistic differences to account for the opponent but with the same general tenor and same basic conclusion. Sometimes, Cal gets a giant lead and blows it. Sometimes, Cal’s opponent gets a giant lead and blows it. Sometimes, both teams trade points for 60 minutes. The order doesn’t matter as long as you know that it’s going to come down to the last possession, whether that possession comes in regulation or overtime.
Analyzing Cal is like analyzing an episode of Scooby Doo. Despite knowing exactly what we’re getting into, everybody is briefly stressed out, and watching might give some fans the munchies. Finally, each installment ends with a reveal that shouldn’t be very surprising.
They would’ve gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for that meddling linebacker.
*Also probably the offense and Jordan Kunaszyk I guess
13 possessions: 5 TDs, 3 FGA (2-3), 4 punts, 1 turnover on downs - 3.2 points/possession
Self-inflicted errors were the difference between a good day and a great day, because Oregon really wasn’t doing much of anything to stop Cal. A couple of penalties derailed 1st half drives in what was otherwise a masterful half of offensive play calling and execution. The 3rd quarter swoon was mildly frustrating and kinda showed how small Cal’s margin for error was due to the offense’s sudden lack of big plays. That Cal was so productive with a modest yards/play number (4.97) and no plays longer than 23 yards is really remarkable and a testament to impressive consistency and/or a really bad Oregon defense (whynotboth.gif)
Where did the deep passes go?
To be a great offensive team, you’ve got to be able to put up points in different ways. Boy have we seen that from Cal. Against Utah and Texas the Bears relied on big pass plays down the field to win. Against Oregon Cal somehow put up 52 points despite a long pass play of just 17 yards . . . which was an underneath throw that saw Vic Wharton get 14 yards after the catch.
It’s entirely possible I’m missing a play considering there were 118 of the damned things, but I don’t recall Davis Webb throwing a pass further than a yard or two past the sticks, even on incompletions. To see a staple of the offense entirely absent over 118 plays is rather shocking. I can think of a few plausible explanations:
- Oregon’s game plan was to stop Cal from going deep, and so Cal simply spent the entire game taking what the Ducks gave them. Oregon typically played with 1 safety deep and looked to be mostly in zone coverage. It was pretty easy for Cal to get a bunch of intermediate completions because of how soft Oregon was playing off of Cal’s receivers
- No Chad Hansen. Self-explanatory, I suppose, but it’s not like Demetris Robertson isn’t a lethal deep threat and Cal has a few other players capable of running a go route.
- Davis Webb isn’t healthy enough to go deep accurately. This one strikes me as the least likely, in part because if deep passes are too big an ask, we would have seen a concurrent decline in short passing accuracy. We certainly didn’t, as Davis Webb completed 69% of his passes, his highest single-game percentage since Hawaii.
Still, for emphasis: Cal scored 52 points without their best wide receiver, with a QB who might not be 100%, and without completing a single throw further than ~10 yards down the field. Wow.
Forcing teams to respect the run
Oregon, much like Oregon State, started the game with a wildly exaggerated scheme to stop Cal’s passing attack, with 4 defensive linemen and just 1 linebacker lined up behind the line. Unlike the OSU game, Cal attacked that decision almost immediately. Before Oregon had a chance to adjust Cal was up 14-0 and Muhammad and Watson had already combined for 113 yards on 12 carries - almost 10 yards a pop.
Oregon adjusted by putting more men in the box, and Cal’s runners ‘only’ averaged a hair less than 5 yards/run the rest of the way, which is still a pretty healthy number. But it’s critical that Cal has shown that they can run the ball when teams don’t put guys in the middle. Hopefully the eventual return of Chad Hansen will allow Cal to repeatedly punish teams for either not respecting the run or not respecting the deep ball.
12 possessions: 6 TDs, 6 punts - 3.5 points/possession
Again, I’m not including the overtime possessions in the calculations above, although they wouldn’t change the points/possession number.
It was a weird game for the defense. Typically, forcing punts on half of your opponents’ possessions would be a solid game for anybody and a GREAT game for Cal’s defense. But since Oregon didn’t have any turnovers (in regulation!) and didn’t have to settle for any field goals, it ended up being a typically painful defensive performance.
The sequencing was also odd. Oregon’s first four drives were disasters - 4 punts, 2.2 yards/play. Then Oregon ran off 6 touchdowns in their final 8 possessions, and one of those drives went 40 yards before getting derailed by a holding penalty. Oregon was almost unstoppable for three quarters of the game, but it still wasn’t enough.
What in the world was going on with Royce Freeman?
One reason why Cal won the game? Royce Freeman was very, very not right. I’m not sure exactly what the problem was, but he looked slow, hesitant, and completely lacking his usual power. The stat line (15 runs, 19 yards) tells you plenty, but also note the timing: Freeman got 5 touches on Oregon’s first two failed drives, then 4 more touches on Oregon’s only failed drive in the middle of 5 TD drives that spanned halftime. Of Oregon’s 6 failed drives, half were caused at least in part by Oregon falling behind the chains on Freeman runs. It’s not crazy to speculate that if he were his typical self (or if Oregon sat him and gave Tony Brooks-James more than 15 carries) that the Ducks may well have won the game.
Not quite understanding the pop-up kick offs
In an effort (presumably) to prevent big play kick off returns, Noah Beito repeatedly popped up kick offs to roughly the 30 yard line. It oddly worked out OK because Oregon’s receivers repeatedly called for a fair catch rather than take the 5-10 yards they could have gained by simply running forward.
Brooks James is a dangerous returner, but Cal’s kickoff depth and kickoff coverage had seemed solid all year. It’s a bit concerning that we’re still not able to kick deep on any team on the schedule.
Again, a lack of positive or negative plays
Cal’s closest special teams play of the night to being a positive was Khalfani Muhammad’s kick off return out to the 34 yard line. Otherwise - a few marginally negative kickoff returns, no punt returns, and iffy punting (Oregon special teams penalties really saved Cal).
To restate from past Monday columns: It’s progress that special teams aren’t going anything negative, but since Cal is dedicated to playing a bunch of one possession pointfests, positive special teams plays would really go a long way towards turning a loss or two into wins.
Still, after watching special teams disasters sink Ohio St. and nearly sink Wazzu, I don’t want to get greedy. No epic screw ups is fine with me!
Coaching/Game Theory Errata
This week, the right game plans from the beginning
Kudos where they’re due - this was all infinitely better than what happened up in Corvallis.
I talked a little bit above about how impressed I was with Cal’s offensive coaches for wringing 52 points out of an offense that lacked explosive play making ability. The defense also had a solid game plan, even if they eventually ran out of the horses necessary to execute said game plan. Still, the Bears keyed on the run, forced Oregon into a few passing downs, and got enough mistakes out of Justin Herbert to get off the field.
I have no clue how Cal can scheme anything to stop USC if James Looney and Darius Allensworth (among other potentially hurt players on defense) are unavailable on Thursday, but I guess that’s a consideration for another day.
4th down righteousness rewarded
Cal earned themselves 13 extra points by attempting and converting 4 separate 4th down conversions. By itself, hardly shocking. But one of the conversion attempts was atypical. 4th and 4 from your own territory is a distance that even Chip Kelly in his heyday would have thought twice about.
Granted, I suspect that Cal would have pooch punted with Webb had Oregon not sent a safety way deep in anticipation of that exact move. But kudos to Dykes for recognizing that this was a game that required every point you could possibly wring out of every possession . . . which makes his decision to not go for it on 4th and 1 from the Cal 30 all the more disappointing. It wasn’t Davis Webb that shanked the pooch punt - it was the vengeful God of righteous 4th down aggression that swayed the punt sideways.
A question for my fellow Cal fans: Sonny Dykes has accomplished something we’ve all been begging for: a win over Oregon. So, how much does that accomplishment mean to you, considering that the team Cal beat on Friday night is nowhere near the same team that ran off 7 straight wins over the Bears?
It’s an interesting question in part because there are more than a few Cal fans who weren’t necessarily thrilled with how the game went, even though it ended with a W. I can’t speak for everybody, but for me, this game was a cruel reminder of what this team could be.
When Cal kicked a field goal to take a 34-14 lead early in the 3rd quarter, we were watching the version of Cal that lives in our realistic day dreams - the version of Cal that is identical, except Cal’s defense is ranked ~60th in the country rather than ~110th. A mediocre defense means that Cal’s offense can fail to score for 3 straight drives and still comfortably win a game rather than immediately blowing a lead that put Cal’s win percentage into the 90s. If Cal has THAT defense, they might be 7-0 right now and we’re talking about whether or not College Game Day will be coming to Berkeley in two weeks.
But Cal doesn’t have that defense, which was something that most of us expected in August, even as we hoped to be wrong. And we’ve learned to celebrate the occasional success - an unexpected goal line stand here, an acrobatic tip drill interception there - because we know they are fleeting and we know they are absolutely critical towards every razor thin margin of victory.
But it won’t stop Cal fans from wondering how different things could be.